H.K. nuke fears abate; Japanese food is back

by Janice Tang

Kyodo

After deserting their favorite Japanese restaurants for several months when the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear accident started in March, Hong Kong people have gradually rekindled their special love for Japanese food.

From high-end sushi bars to casual ramen shops, some 700 Japanese restaurants dot the city. Hong Kong, with a population of only about 7 million, had been the world’s largest importer of Japanese food products for four consecutive years through 2010.

But in the immediate outbreak of the nuclear crisis, many of these restaurants were dealt a harsh blow as Hong Kong diners worried about radiation contamination in Japanese food. Some eateries reported business plummeting by up to 80 percent and a number were forced to close down, local food industry officials said.

“People simply lost confidence in eating Japanese food, especially fresh food like sushi,” said Simon Wong, chairman of the Hong Kong Food Council.

The Japanese consul general in Hong Kong, Yuji Kumamaru, recalled that Hong Kong consumers “very much feared” products imported from Japan due to concerns about the radiation spewed by the crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

“Japanese restaurants here were very much deserted across the board,” he said.

To lure back patrons, some Japanese restaurants went so far as to put up advertisements assuring consumers that their supplies were either from parts of Japan far from Fukushima Prefecture or came from other countries, including China, Australia and South Africa.

Diners slowly began to return around the end of May, and by late August business for most Japanese restaurants and supermarkets specializing in Japanese food had recovered, the Food Council’s Wong said.

“Actually, some restaurant owners told me that they are getting even better business than before March 11,” he added, although the ongoing import restrictions on food products from Fukushima and four neighboring prefectures are still affecting some higher-end restaurants that depend more heavily on authentic ingredients.

Yata Ltd., a popular Japanese-style department store that sells everything from Japanese food and fashion to daily necessities, also saw its business recover after overall sales plunged at least 70 percent in April and May, Managing Director Daniel Chong said.

“In August, when we started selling Japanese peaches, they were immediately sold out,” he said in describing the rebound in consumer demand for Japanese produce. “We are already above last year’s sales record (for peaches).”

In addition to extensive promotion campaigns by the food industry amid the nuclear crisis, the city’s swift response to stepping up food safety surveillance has also contributed to regaining public confidence in Japanese food, industry and government officials said.

Hong Kong activated blanket screening of food imported from Japan the day after the nuclear crisis first broke out. Authorities issued an import ban on products from Fukushima and four other prefectures on March 23 after detecting vegetable samples with radiation that exceeded the city’s safety standards.

Since then, no further contamination has been detected in consignments arriving from Japan.

“I think it did confer upon our community confidence that we are safeguarding food safety for the people of Hong Kong,” said Constance Chan, controller of the government’s Center for Food Safety. “In a way, they knew that we are doing something effective. . . . Food that is able to pass our test system is safe.”

The center continues to closely monitor the situation and maintains its stringent approach, especially toward such items as milk and milk products due to concerns about infants, she said.

Yolenda Chu, a 33-year-old lawyer in Hong Kong, said she and her husband were not too worried about consuming Japanese food even in light of the nuclear incident.

“I understood from TV news that the Hong Kong government has introduced some policies to ensure all the imported food and products from Japan would be safe, so I trust that what are available in the market would be safe,” she said.

The couple have also resumed traveling to Japan, one of their favorite holiday destinations, visiting Fukuoka in September and Nara, Osaka and Kobe in October.

They even bought Fukushima peaches on two occasions while in Fukuoka, and are planning their next visit to Kyoto this month to see the autumn foliage, her husband, Phoebus, said.

Six months after the nuclear accident started, the number of visitors from Hong Kong to Japan remained 15.6 percent down in September from a year earlier, according to the latest figures by the Japan National Tourism Organization.

But it was a significant improvement from a plunge of 87.6 percent in April, the sharpest decline among 15 major countries and economies surveyed, and a more rapid recovery than other travelers, including those from China, South Korea and Taiwan.

Consul General Kumamaru, while acknowledging that Japan must improve on disseminating information more swiftly and accurately to the world in times of disasters such as the one in March so as to minimize international concerns, is optimistic that the nuclear crisis has not tarnished the image of Japan in Hong Kong.

“The radiation issue has made Hong Kong people nervous about the food and their travel for the time being, but once that’s dealt with, I’m pretty sure we will be able to bring the reputation back to the previous level,” he said.

Yata Department Store’s Chong is also upbeat.

Noting that the lines that suddenly vanished from in front of Hong Kong sushi restaurants in April and May have now reappeared, Chong said with a smile, “You can say this is the beauty of Hong Kong people; they will sometimes overreact to some news, but they also have a very short memory.”